MGI’s founder, Mayor Michael Tubbs of Stockton, California. Photo: Mayors for a Guaranteed Income
MGI’s founder, Mayor Michael Tubbs of Stockton, California. Photo: Mayors for a Guaranteed Income

After a long wait, leaders in Congress have finally reached an accord regarding the successor to the CARES Act, which will include another round of direct aid: $600 one-time payments to individuals and a boost to unemployment payments of $300 a week. While commentators and congresspeople alike have pointed to the paltriness of that aid, it’s still the second time within a year that the federal government is giving its citizens direct cash—a move that helped reduce poverty early in the pandemic, despite the shutdowns.

It’s also been a good year for unconditional gifts in philanthropy. We’ve seen grantmakers loosen longstanding restrictions and let resources flow more freely to address the fallout of COVID-19, racial injustice and a turbulent election. Nonprofit grantees benefited from that attitude shift, but so did individual citizens and families lucky enough to receive cash relief through efforts like the Families and Workers Fund, or through one of many local cash relief programs.

This sudden influx of direct cash transfers to those in need is good news for those who advocate making them permanent. By exacerbating pre-existing disparities, COVID-19 has strengthened arguments for guaranteed income put forward by figures like Andrew Yang, and accelerated the pace of critique leveled against a faltering neoliberal order.

Into this national conversation have stepped some of neoliberal capitalism’s chief beneficiaries, tech-industry multibillionaires like Jack Dorsey, MacKenzie Scott and Pierre Omidyar. All three have emerged as new examples of that rare breed of billionaire willing to support overt economic justice work. And when it comes to guaranteed income, it is Dorsey who is backing some of the most interesting efforts via his newly founded giving vehicle, Start Small. Prominent among them is an innovative campaign called Mayors for a Guaranteed Income (MGI), spearheaded by a young Black mayor from California, and now embraced by dozens of municipal leaders across the country.

A demonstration and a donor

Like many of his super-rich peers, Dorsey has seen his net worth skyrocket this year. When the Twitter co-founder and CEO first committed $1 billion to COVID-19 relief in April, the gift represented nearly 30% of his wealth—an impressive commitment, to be sure. Dorsey’s wealth has rather incredibly quadrupled to over $12 billion since that time. And because they’re composed of equity in his other company, Square, the resources available to StartSmall have done so, as well. A publicly accessible Google doc tracking the LLC’s commitments pegs its current assets at around $3.6 billion, with around $321 million disbursed since April.

Backing guaranteed income under the heading of COVID-19 relief was on StartSmall’s agenda from the beginning. Via grants to organizations like Andrew Yang’s Humanity Forward, GiveDirectly, the One Family Foundation and Expecting Justice, Dorsey has backed numerous unconditional cash programs for populations hard-hit by the pandemic. Through Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, he’s taking it one step further by supporting a nationwide guaranteed income advocacy campaign, with cities leading the charge.

It all started last year with Mayor Michael Tubbs of Stockton, California, the 30-year-old city leader whose Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED) constituted the nation’s first mayor-led guaranteed income demonstration. Like many of the pilot projects now following its example, SEED was modest in scope: 125 Stockton residents got $500 a month for 18 months beginning in February 2019. Early on, Tubbs’ project got the backing of the Economic Security Project, a platform for boundary-pushing economic justice advocacy backed in part by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes.

When we covered the Economic Security Project’s guaranteed income advocacy last year—and later its move into anti-monopoly work—unconditional cash sat a lot further from the political mainstream than it does today. In just a few months, at least 30 mayors from cities spanning the U.S. have signed onto MGI, which Tubbs founded as a vehicle to replicate Stockton’s demonstration in other cities and advocate for national guaranteed income.

City hall advocates

Dorsey is by far the largest supporter of MGI. His initial commitment of $3 million in June helped kickstart the organization, and another gift of $15 million in November will help pay for additional guaranteed income pilots. Dorsey’s investments ensure that every city in the MGI network can draw on up to $500,000 to fund their own pilot programs. Meanwhile, the Economic Security Project remains close to the effort, providing staff support and implementation assistance.

The uptake has been substantial so far. Six additional cities are either planning to or have already launched pilots of their own, including St. Paul, Minnesota; Richmond, Virginia; Compton, California; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Columbia, South Carolina; and Oakland, California. Building on an initial group of 11 mayors who came together around MGI in June—including Melvin Carter of St. Paul, Minnesota; Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles; and Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta—MGI now has at least 30 mayors in its ranks. To name just a few more, there’s LaToya Cantrell of New Orleans, Jenny Durkan of Seattle, Jim Kenney of Philadelphia, William Peduto of Pittsburgh and Libby Schaff of Oakland, California.

In a press call earlier this month, several of the mayors shared their perspectives. Many, including Tubbs himself, cited MGI’s long-term goal of moving the needle on policy and public opinion. “It just can’t be mayors using philanthropic money to do this,” he said. “Hunger, economic insecurity, evictions, homelessness—these are all choices, choices we are making as a society to not solve issues, choices we are making when we know what [the] answers could be.”

Other mayors echoed Tubbs’ point. One of them was Garcetti, whose involvement puts one of the nation’s largest cities in the MGI camp. “American cities won’t be able to lift this, long term, by themselves. This is to prove the concept so we can have national and state leadership that says a basic income is cheaper than the cost of poverty,” Garcetti said.

For the time being, a large proportion of the mayors involved in MGI are Black, and several of them called attention to the racial dynamics that have long plagued fiscal anti-poverty solutions in the United States. For instance, Mayor Melvin Carter of St. Paul expressed his hopes that these demonstrations might help dispel “racist tropes” surrounding direct aid to people of color, including thinking along the lines of “if you give ‘those people’ money, here’s what they’ll do with it.”

Mayor LaToya Cantrell of New Orleans made a similar point, citing broad support for direct cash payments among the American public. “Nothing helps a struggling family like money in the pocket,” she said. “Nowhere is that more apparent than the African American and Latino communities, who are more likely to be unemployed but less likely to get unemployment benefits.”

The racial justice component of MGI has historical roots—during the Civil Rights era, Martin Luther King, Jr., advocated for a national guaranteed income as a means to extend broad-based prosperity to Americans of all colors and begin healing the damage of Jim Crow. Though King’s vision never came to fruition, today’s reinvigorated civil rights protest movement has drawn fresh attention to such goals, including from philanthropists like Dorsey. He contributed in June to new-era movement groups like Black Lives Matter, the Movement for Black Lives, Color of Change and the Black Visions Collective.

Complementary research

Dorsey’s commitment to guaranteed income advocacy this year doesn’t end with MGI. His $15 million gift to Tubbs’ initiative coincided with another $15 million to Open Research Lab’s Basic Income Project to fund monthly cash grants of $1,000 to participants in a three-year pilot program. That project, adjacent to MGI but separate from it, is a more pointedly academic effort with similar goals: to study what people do with a guaranteed income and how it affects their lives with long-term policy advocacy in mind. Note that Open Research Lab is a now-independent offshoot of Silicon Valley startup accelerator Y Combinator.

Open Research Lab’s project complements MGI’s own research arm, the newly minted Center for Guaranteed Income Research. Launched last month in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice, the center will gather and assemble data and anecdotal evidence from ongoing municipal pilot projects associated with MGI.

If this particular blend of municipal pilot projects and data-driven policy brings Michael Bloomberg’s giving to mind, it seems the folks at Bloomberg Philanthropies had the same thought. While Dorsey’s $18 million constitutes the bulk of MGI’s current funding, Bloomberg Philanthropies also came in with $200,000. It’s a modest commitment, but an unconventional one from Bloomberg, who has typically stayed away from edgier economic justice funding.

On top of that, another $250,000 came in from Arrow Impact, a private foundation based in Oakland, California and associated with Mark Wolfson of Jasper Ridge Partners, an investment management firm. Wolfson also heads the Jasper Ridge Charitable Fund, which has given small grants to civil rights organizations like the SPLC and the NAACP, as well as a big gift of $3.5 million in 2017 to Impact Justice, the Oakland-based justice reform group.

“People are poor because they don’t have money”

One of the more intriguing aspects of MGI, from a philanthropic perspective, is just how many issue areas and arenas it spans. From economic justice to racial and gender equity, and from direct local relief to federal policy advocacy, it’s an intersectional initiative because the problems it’s addressing aren’t constrained to a single issue area. And yet, it’s still dependent on the largesse of one big billionaire donor.

Whether other funders ever come in at Dorsey’s level remains to be seen. Meanwhile, actual Congressional action on a national guaranteed income is very unlikely in the near future. Nevertheless, advocates’ long game will continue. If MGI sticks around, we may see mayors and cities emerge as a consistent hotspot for that advocacy, a definite step up from the days when the only people talking about guaranteed income were Silicon Valley technologists and a few progressive wonks. Tubbs has indicated his determination to remain in the fight whether he’s a mayor or not, and we might even see Andrew Yang voted in as mayor of New York—a certain boon for guaranteed income.

Still, as Tubbs mentioned, there’s only so much cities and philanthropy can do. It’ll take federal action to implement the kind of national poverty-busting guaranteed income program these advocates envision. Providence, Rhode Island, Mayor Jorge Elorza put it bluntly: “We believe that, fundamentally, people are poor because they don’t have money. So if we’re serious in this country about addressing poverty, then let’s address it in the most direct and effective way possible.”